As many of you may have seen, last Wednesday was World Mental Health Day. And if you did see the myriad of social media posts, perhaps you, like me, fully experienced just how common mental health struggles are. Here are a few stats from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (1) just to show how many people in the U.S. alone are experiencing mental health challenges:
And I don’t know about you, but sometimes, maybe because they are so commonly reported this way, or I am distractedly reading them, these stats roll by me without my really realizing their full impact or how they might relate to my own experience. So just take a moment to let that fully sink in. And in case you still feel a disconnect, allow me to share an abbreviated criteria from the DSM 5 for Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) (2), which reportedly affects 6.8 million U.S. adults each year (1):
As you read these, can you relate to any of them? I am willing to bet that for many if not most of us, there are heads nodding and a resounding “Yes!”. Perhaps some of you are thinking, “Oh my gosh, do I have anxiety!? Is there something wrong with me!?” And that’s what I want to address. Because it is so very COMMON, NORMAL, and HUMAN to experience mental and emotional discomfort. And I am willing to bet that these statistics, though higher than I’d like, are HEAVILY underestimated due to under-reporting. Why? Because none of us wants to feel like there is something “wrong” with us; none of us wants a label that means “bad, wrong, different, faulty, or other”. And, historically the way that we have addressed mental health makes suggestion that we shouldn’t be feeling this way, that it’s not "normal” and if we are, then we are “under-functioning” in some way that needs to be “fixed”. Let’s look at movies alone; how has mental illness and the support available been portrayed? It plays like a horror movie! And I’m not even going to address the health insurance aspect of this conversation! Thankfully, it has become part of pop culture to speak up about mental health awareness; but sometimes hearing it from a celebrity can still feel far removed from our own experience.
So, I felt like it was about time that I share my own experience with it. Because despite being a strong advocate for mental and holistic health, and have two degrees in psychology, I realized I haven’t openly shared about my personal experience with anxiety, panic, and depression. And despite being a strong believer in the field of psychology, in therapy, and receiving mental health support, something that I prioritize in my life to this day, I still very much felt the stigma and the discomfort of reaching out, asking for help, and talking about it openly for a long time. I wasn't aware of it, but subconsciously I held the belief that this meant there was something “wrong” with me. That I was “different” than others and “inadequate” in some way. That because I had studied it, I should somehow be “immune” to experiencing it. But I wasn’t and I am not. None of us are- AND THAT IS OK!!!
I experienced my first panic attack midway through my first semester of college. It was significant and severe. I couldn’t breathe. My heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. I had tunnel vision. My ears were ringing. My whole body was cold, tense, and trembling. My mind felt like it was splitting into a million pieces. I thought that I was simultaneously having a heart attack and “going crazy”. Although I had the personality of a planner and a perfectionist, and college was a big lifestyle adjustment for me, it felt like the attacks came out of nowhere. As a result, I became hypervigilant; tensely anticipating when it would happen again. I felt completely out of control. Being out in public felt excruciating as I didn’t know if I would be able to run and hide if a panic attack hit. I began to get to class earlier just so I could pick a desk near the exit, if I needed to run. I stopped wanting to socialize. At at a low point, I experienced intermittent panic that left me sleepless for three days. I couldn’t eat. I was losing weight. I was exhausted. And I remember feeling like a total failure when my mom asked, “do you need to take a break from college?”.
The fear of “being” seen as inadequate and not able to handle college actually motivated me to take action. I saw a GP on a trip home and within about 10 minutes I was diagnosed with GAD with Panic and Depression and prescribed three different pharmaceuticals: an antidepressant, and two anxiolytics, one for general anxiety and one to take as needed when I felt panic coming on. Due to the potential side effects of the antidepressant, I was required to see an on-campus counselor as well. I actually don’t remember any of my counseling sessions, not uncommon for the level of stress my system was under. I do remember crying a lot. Sharing a lot. And very gradually, beginning to feel a bit lighter as the semester went on. The anxiolytics, especially the one that I took as needed for panic, did give me at least a semblance of control. However, I also felt mostly numb. I felt like a walking zombie. It took every ounce of clinging to my “good student, good girl” identity to show up for classes. I remember lying in bed next to my boyfriend at the time and feeling nothing- not my body, not the bed beneath me, nothing. And I thought, “THIS is not normal. Feeling nothing, is not normal.” In that moment, I resolved to do the work to wean off of the medications and to find ways to be with and feel my feelings. And I did. (Personal choice and I completely respect those who choose to thrive with medication)
After therapy, exercise was my first coping mechanism. It was actually my counselor who recommended that when I felt a panic attack coming on, to find the nearest stairs and to run up and down them, to show my mind that I wasn’t having a heart attack. And it worked! So exercise took on a whole new meaning and significance in my life.
A couple of years later, when I began to experience severe anxiety (the symptoms of which were completely different than my first go around) in grad school, I began to practice yoga. At first, slowing down that much felt terribly uncomfortable. My whole system wanted to scream and run away from the thoughts and feelings I’d shoved down for so long. Thankfully, I had an amazing teacher and I stuck with it. And my whole demeanor and life began to transform. Truly! How I ate, moved, breathed, and interacted with others changed. When I went home for visits, people noticed that I was “different” and “calmer”. I was!
And years after a dedicated physical practice, I began to focus more on breath and meditation. I’ll never forget sitting in the yoga room at a yoga and meditation retreat in India, when our teacher said, “you are not your thoughts”. Perhaps I had heard it before, but in that moment it REALLY sunk in! The thoughts running through my mind, are not me. I choose whether to believe them and if I want to respond to them. And when I witness them with that awareness, their impact COMPLETELY changes. It’s not as strong. I don’t feel as reactive. How could I have gone through most of my life without knowing this? Why are we not taught this amazingly accessible, free, and potent coping mechanism early on in life!?
And that is why I am so passionate about awareness practices, including meditation, as a coping mechanism, and a part of everyday thriving. The tendency to distract and numb out in our society is ultra high and readily accessible. But until we look at the uncomfortable thoughts, beliefs, and patterning square in the eye, I believe they will continue to show up as discomfort and dis-ease in our systems. Additionally, creating the capacity to BE with whatever arises reconnects us with this amazingly powerful source of inner strength, that is inherent but often underutilized.
I won’t say that I never experience anxiety or even panic anymore. Anxiety is 1) a NORMAL and informative feeling, and 2) complex and multi-faceted- it can occur due to thoughts, life events, our diet, external toxin exposure, co-occurring physical states in the body such as hypothyroidism (1). And as I have learned to be with it, I have learned more about how each of these pieces played into and influenced my own experience- hello blood sugar regulation!! Yet now, my relationship with anxiety and uncomfortable states in general- sadness, anger, guilt, shame- is completely different. Rather than moving faster, distracting, and numbing with food, exercise, social activity, or social media, I slow down and let it take center stage. I ask it what it has to show me. I listen, gently, and compassionately. And as the waves of the discomfort wash over, I am simply a WITNESS to it. I keep in mind that I am NOT THIS, I am an OBSERVER of this. I remember the TRUTH of who I am. And I feel simultaneously empty and full. Peaceful and strong. (Afterward! I doesn't ever stop being uncomfortable, at least not for me)
I hope that my sharing this serves you, and if you have any questions or would like support, please, please reach out! We are all in this together. As I like to say, “no one goes unscathed by life”. Mental and emotional discomfort are a NORMAL and I'd say healthy part of that. They are simply part of our warning system that something feels misaligned. It is our job to listen and respond.
With big love,
P.S. If this message resonates with you, and you'd like my support on your health journey, please schedule a FREE discovery call HERE to so we can connect and see if now is a good time for us to partner together!
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